As we move closer and closer to the purported Brexit end game, although never quite getting there like the paradox of Zeno, the pressure mounts on Ireland to save the brexiteers blushes. Not just the UK media but elements within the Irish media have begun to mutter and muse on whether we should not perhaps, just perhaps, consider dropping the backstop, limiting it somehow, do SOMETHING to get Brexit over the line.
This would be foolish in the extreme. The backstop, let us recall, is an insurance policy. It kicks in if and only if other arrangements cannot otherwise be found that would keep a seamless border. Initially conceived by the UK as an arrangement for Northern Ireland alone, that was shot down by the DUP/ERG, fatally undermining the already tattered control of T May . We should have some sympathy for that position, as it did and will partition a country along internal customs lines. But then, it was the desire of the country to be so partitioned, and despite the occasional outburst, NI is already distinct in law custom and practice from the rest of the UK.
With the scuppering of the NI only backstop it then, at the request of the UK, moved to the notion of a backstop for the UK as a whole. While this preserved the integrity of the UK from a internal trade perspective it enraged more than the hard right DUP/ERG as it, if implemented, would result in BRINO – Brexit In Name Only. So it too is no longer acceptable, it seems.
But, the argument goes, if we Irish keep this insistence on the backstop as an insurance policy we run the risk of a crashout no deal. Despite the fantasies of the wilder shores of Tory right wingers, the UK cannot even under WTO rules simply ignore its border. Nor can we ignore our obligations as EU members to police and protect what will be a border with a third country. So the backstop, it is said, will bring about the very thing it is designed to prevent. Why not then drop it in whole or part?
Doing so would require one of two things. Either we give a timelimit – that it will last X years and no longer, or that we would in effect ourselves depart from the EU single market. Lets look at these.
The most charitable interpretation of the UK approach to the negotiations is that they are at sea. But the other interpretation, one that has been given additional weight by recent revelations, is that they were not recently, or perhaps ever, negotiating in good faith. One does not have to be a brit-basher to have deep and profound misgivings as to the faith in which the UK negotiates. With a time limited backstop we would be negotiating alone against a larger party. There would be every incentive and it would be quite sensible for them to simply run down the clock, to stall, and then when the backstop expired look us in the eye and say “and?”. We would have no EU backing and we would have in effect “bottled it” in giving in on the backstop. So that would result in enormous pressure for the second, for us to depart in whole or part, but in fact, from the EU single market. We would be flouting EU rules and leaving open the EU external border and that would not be tolerated.
This would be folly on the most enormous, unforgivable, egregious scale. Every indicator of economic progress in Ireland shows two major recent breakpoints. The first is the accession the EEC as it then was, and the second, and arguably more profound, the advent of the Single Market. Any weakening of our membership such as would be required were we to allow a semi-permanent open border with a non-EU member would be massivly dislocative. FDI would in all likelihood slow – while we can query our reliance on same and its composition the reality is we benefit greatly from companies using us as a fiscal or product bridgehead into the EU. Irish exports to the EU would at best face additional checks, at worse be seen as potentially contaminated by non EU components and thus decline. A reversal of the last 27 years of economic growth would be put in place because of our desire to keep an open border.
The government know this. They know that in a no deal we will have to protect the economic best interests of the state which is served by EU and SM membership. Any Brexit makes our economy somewhat weaker than otherwise. To compound this to spare what are in aggregate terms relatively small, relatively unproductive regions or sectors would be economic insanity. Yes, additional checks and rolling customs will be of huge impact on border communities. Yes, it will harden further attitudes in the North. Yes, it will fuel further a narrative In the gutter press of the UK and the less than a fringe movement that is Irexit that we are poodles of the EU. But cold hard economic reality dictates that even if we lose 50k jobs from a hard Brexit that is the price of defending 100’s of thousands more that would be at risk from any weakening of our SM membership. That’s the harsh political dilemma.